Movie Review: ‘Birds of Prey’ unleashes Harley Quinn in the most fantabulous of ways
Director: Cathy Yan
Writer: Christina Hodson
Stars: Margot Robbie, Rosie Perez, Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Jurnee Smollett-Bell, Ella Jay Basco
Synopsis: After splitting with the Joker, Harley Quinn joins superheroes Black Canary, Huntress and Renee Montoya to save a young girl from an evil crime lord.
Harley Quinn has been a fan favorite since her debut in Batman: The Animated Series (Season 1, Episode 7 “Joker’s Favor”). Writers had only planned to have her appear in one episode, but when her popularity skyrocketed with fans, she was made a regular character. Since then, Harley Quinn has been written into comic books, appeared in multiple animated tv shows and movies, and recently made her live-action movie debut in Suicide Squad (2016). Birds of Prey is Harley’s latest adventure on the big screen, and she is joined by several of DC’s well-known female vigilantes.
Birds of Prey picks up sometime after the events of Suicide Squad (2016). Harley (Margot Robbie) and the Joker have broken up, and now any person who’s ever held a grudge against her has decided it’s open season on the Clown Prince of Crime’s former partner. Roman Sionis (Ewan McGregor), an eccentric crime lord eager on expanding his empire, takes this opportunity to claim Harley for himself stating, “If she doesn’t belong to the Joker, she belongs to me.” This starts a chain of events that leads to a young pickpocket with a $50,000 bounty on her head and four unlikely women banding together to protect her.
I loved this movie, and I’ve been super excited since I saw the first teaser trailer, and I am happy to report it exceeded my expectations. The story is told from Harley’s point of view using voice overs, animation, text, and fourth wall breaks. It’s also done in a sometimes chaotic, non-linear way. This quirky style of storytelling fits her character and I’d easily believe that’s how her brain works. It also manages to be super bright and colorful to fit Harley’s esthetic, while maintaining the dark and moody overtone that movies in the DCEU tend to have. Birds of Prey is also littered with DC Easter eggs from the comics, cartoons, video games, and previous films in the DCEU. You can see many versions of Harley Quinn’s costumes over the years, the original inspiration for Harley Quinn, Arleen Sorkin, can be briefly seen on a tv, and you can even spot a wanted poster for Captain Boomerang if you’re paying attention. There are loads more, so be sure to look out for them when you see the movie!
One of my favorite elements of Birds of Prey were the fight scenes. Fight Choreographer Jon Valera and Stunt Coordinator Jonathan Eusebio are known for their work on films like John Wick (2014), 300 (2006), and various films in the MCU including Black Panther (2018). They produced some of the most entertaining action bits I’ve seen in a while. They managed to infuse Harley’s acrobatic and humorous style into brutal, R-rated combat while also making them feel like they popped right off the page of a comic book. The ragdoll like movements of men being hit by bats or giant mallets, the creative use of some interesting locations, campy dialogue, and unique fighting styles for each character are just a few things that stood out to me. The music also worked especially well in the action sequences. Birds of Prey has a great soundtrack. I bought it immediately after I saw the film and have been playing it on repeat ever since. Songs were selected that enhanced the scenes they’re used in and set the tone for what’s to come. I also appreciated that the entire soundtrack was female artists. Which brings me to my favorite thing about Birds of Prey: its message and theme of female empowerment.
Birds of Prey is, at its core, a movie about women escaping toxic male environments. Harley is finally free of the Joker (yes that’s a toxic relationship no matter what the internet says…) Renee Montoya (Rosie Perez) isn’t taken seriously as a detective, Dinah Lance (Jurnee Smollett-Bell) works for a controlling psychopath, and Helena Bertinelli (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) wants revenge against the men who killed her family. The movie never gives any of these toxic men the opportunity to outshine a female costar. For example, when a villain is trying to do his standard bad guy monologue, he is cut off or overshadowed by something like text on the screen, a narrator voice over, or cutting to an entirely different scene. It also includes little things like wearing practical clothing during a fight and offering someone a hair tie. No one wants their long flowy hair in their face when fighting bad guys. Things like that speak to female viewers. I don’t care if you have superpowers, you can’t fight in stilettos and a miniskirt, especially if your hair is constantly falling in your face. This is a movie any action fan would enjoy. The characters are an interesting and dynamic group. Robbie is a perfect Harley Quinn and Smollett-Bell is a clear stand out. She brings a 1970s Pam Grier vibe to Black Canary and contributes to the soundtrack with her amazing rendition of “It’s a Man’s, Man’s, Man’s World”. Winstead brings a social awkwardness that works to her character, Perez and Basco were also fabulous and I can’t wait to see more from them in the next movie.
If I had to pick any “negatives” for this film they would be with how it portrays Roman Sionis/Black Mask (Ewan McGregor), Victor Zsasz (Chris Messina), and Cassandra Cain (Ella Jay Basco). I think both McGregor and Messina did a good job portraying bad guys, but they didn’t remind me of the characters I’m familiar with from the animated series and/or comics. Black Mask was close, but a little too extra (for lack of a better word…) That being said- if this was done on purpose, maybe to portray Sionis as Harley Quinn perceives him- I’m totally okay with it. Messina’s version of Zsasz was menacing and obviously nuts, but not enough so to be recognized as Zsasz from the comics and animated series. His trademark scars were also less prominent which made him almost unrecognizable as Zsasz. Also, Cassandra Cain’s backstory was completely left out.. She’s a well-known character and many people know who she eventually becomes (being vague to avoid potential spoilers…) but Birds of Prey didn’t pull from any of the half dozen or so backstories she’s been given in the comics. The last complaint I have is with the title, Birds of Prey. The movie isn’t about the Birds of Prey, it’s about Harley Quinn. Yes, they make an appearance, but the title leads you to believe that Harley is a member of the Birds of Prey or that they’re the focus of the film. I think the title could be one of the things making long time Batman fans think twice before seeing it.
Birds of Prey is a female directed, written, and produced action flick. It’s something anyone old enough to see an R-rated movie can enjoy. It brings accurate portrayals of beloved characters to the big screen, along with comic book worthy action sequences and witty dialogue. It’s a fantabulous movie, with important embedded messages that will probably remain at the top of my ranked “Films of 2020” list and it’s possibly my favorite comic book movie ever. Please give it a chance and see it on the biggest screen possible.
Overall Grade: A-
Hear our podcast review on Episode 364: